Understanding and managing behavior problems in rabbits (Proceedings)


Educate clients early to monitor for these behavioral changes.

• Understand normal behavior

• Know subtle behavior changes that indicate problems

• Educate clients early to monitor for these behavioral changes

Healthy Rabbits – Understanding Normal Behavior is Imperative

• Inquisitive

• Alert and curious

• Bright eyes

• Will often eat if offered favored treats

• Timid in strange surroundings but eyes are bright and postures normal

• Will "shake off", groom, investigate and eat as becomes more calmMay lay out with rear legs stretched

Unhealthy Rabbits

• lifeless, glazed and unfocused eyes

• immobile, stop grooming

• lack curiosity about their surroundings

• isolation from bonded mates

Sensory Behaviors

• Vision - laterally placed eyes

     o Scanning

• Tactile: Lips and vibrissae

     o Startle if hand placed beneath their noses

• Hearing

     o Sensitive to loud noises

     o Thermoregulation

• Olfactory

     o Scent glands

     o Fecal pellets/anal gland secretions

     o Latrine sites

     o Scent of kits

Reproductive Behaviors

• Sexual maturity is function of size not age

     o Small breeds – 4-5 months of age

     o Medium breeds – 4-6 months of age

     o Large breeds – 5-8 months of age

• Male Rabbits

     o Courtship - chinning, enurination, muzzle, groom, tail flagging

     o Mating – bites the female at nape of neck, ejaculation soon after intromission, male then falls on his back or his side and lets out a sharp cry

• Female Rabbits

     o Induced ovulators

     o Receptive females exhibit restlessness, lordosis, chinning, congested vulva

     o Non-receptive females will run away, bite, vocalize

     o Stress d/t crowding, disease and predators may cause resorption of embryos at midterm

     o Nesting is evident and occurs 1-2 days prepartum

           Neutering decreases urine and fecal marking

           Spaying decreases reproductive neoplasia and hormonal behaviors

           False pregnancy common

           Keep separated for at least 30 days after altering

Communication Behaviors - Rabbits

• Grunt, growl, snort, barking – anger/annoyance/territory protection

• Honking/Oinking – for food/attention/courtship

• High pitched, repetitive scream – fear/terror/pain

• Fear – motionless, crouched position with feet beneath body, head extended, ears flattened against head, eyes bulging

• Alert – ears forward or held laterally

• Erect tail – excitement/anticipation/if threatened

• Tail twitching – courting/urine spraying

• Presenting – flat on floor with feet tucked/head extended/chin on floor (submissive)

• Licking – sign of affection

• Nipping – anger/seeking attention

• Tooth purring – low pitched hum with teeth lightly vibrating & whiskers quivering

• Teeth grinding – slower, louder tooth crunching w/bulging eyes d/t pain

• Wheezing sniffing – talking/irritation

• Chinning – mark with secretions from chin (geographical differences in components, maintains dominance hierarchies)

• Urine spraying

Social Behaviors in Rabbits

• Social species

     o Increased cortisol levels if separated

     o Increased exercise and interaction

     o Safety in numbers

     o Bonding should be supervised

Grooming Behaviors – Rabbits

• Meticulous groomers

• Clean ears with rear feet

• Mutual Grooming

• Grooming after handling

• Do not bathe

• Longhaired Rabbits

• Ectoparasites – seborrhea, alopecia, pruritis, aural discharge

Lack of grooming

• Obesity

• Arthritis or Other Pain

• Discospondylosis

• Orofacial pathology

• Intense pruritis/parasites

• Lethargy (insulinoma in ferrets)

• Diarrhea/Fecal matting

Eating Behaviors

• Herbivorous – need high fiber/low protein

• No sugars or starches

• Lateral/circular grinding motion of jaw

• Develop food preferences early

• Any change in eating habits significant

• Lack of food – polydipsia, lack of water - anorexia

• Counsel owners about how food and water is provided and maintained

• Water bowl may prevent chronic dehydration

Orofacial Path

• Subtle signs: pick up/interest in food but then drop it, change food preferences, dull/quiet

• Obvious signs: hypersalivation, pawing at the mouth, anorexia, lack of grooming, swelling and pain on palpation of affected area

• Examine teeth with otoscope at every exam

• Anesthesia and use of proper speculums is mandatory for complete exam, trimming and filing teeth – do not pull the tongue outside of the mouth.

Elimination Behaviors - Rabbits

• Defecation

     o relatively passive process, sitting position, tail down

     o continuous throughout the day

     o rarely constipated

• Cecotropes

     o overproduced w/diets high in proteins

     o obesity impairs grooming

     o grass hays, decreased or no pellets, increase activity

Urinary Behaviors – Rabbits

• Micturation is a relatively passive process & tail is only lifted slightly

• Straining will be evidenced by an exaggerated lifting of the tail and the hind end during micturation ± vocalizations

Locomotor Behaviors/Activity

• Normal ambulation - Rabbits

     o hop with rear legs simultaneously

     o entire plantar surface of foot is used

     o moving slowly only toes of rear feet touch the ground

     o when sitting the entire plantar surface from hock to toes is in contact with the ground

     o weight carried evenly on all 4 feet

• Subtle changes in ambulation and posture should be addressed

     o walking vs. hopping with rear legs

     o sitting unevenly

     o leaning with one limb held close to the body

• Active in morning and evening

• Sleep or rest mid-day

     o Lay on sides or sternally with feet stretched out behind them

     o Often sleep with eyes open/startle

• Like to perch

• Like hideboxes (denning)

Continuously caged

• Obesity

• Pododermatitis

• Osteoporosis

• Behavioral problems

     o Exhibit More nervous behaviors

     o Repetitive behaviors

     o Overgrooming

How Does Behavior Relate to Hospitalization

• Towel for traction

• Hay and Greens in exam room

• Not touching the nose during examination

• Prey species – separate from predators

• Provide hideboxes

• What foods and how is water supplied?


• Too much food

• Too little exercise

• Associated medical problems:

     o Difficulty grooming

     o Difficulty ambulating

     o Pressure on GIT, diaphragm

     o Pododermatitis


• Know clinical signs of pain

• Address pain BEFORE diagnostics and other treatments

• Secondary physiological changes include gastric ulcers, decreased peripheral circulation, decreased temperature, GI stasis and even death

Managing Behavior Problems

• Undesirables include urine and fecal marking, chewing, digging and aggression

• Most obvious at 3½ to 6 mos.

• Test boundaries, instinctive behaviors and more assertive

• Establishing social order in their "community"

• Usually temporary unless mishandled or not addressed at all

• Previous traumatic/painful events (including medical problems)

• Not meant to be "spiteful"

• Unrealistic expectations – not all rabbits react the same

• Unique personalities

• Avoid inadvertently reinforced negative behaviors – interacting less

• Control environment to eliminate negative behaviors

• Spay/Neuter early

• Decrease confinement/increase exercise

• Decrease stress/anxiety

• Provide consistent schedule including feeding and day/night cycle

• Distract to positive behaviors and then reward

• Divert attention to acceptable behaviors – digging box

• Rule out medical issues w/twice yearly exams

• Provide free choice grass hays and high fiber diet

• Eliminate rough handling

• Allow for foraging behaviors by hiding food & treats for them to find

• Provide interactive items that stimulate instinctive behaviors/decrease boredom

• Provide behavioral enrichment to stimulate them mentally

Behavioral Enrichment

• Simulate natural environment & counsel clients on how to best provide for their pets emotional and psychosocial needs

• Allow for play -- Bonded pairs/trios

• Provide UVB lighting

• Cardboard boxes, PVC tubes

• Straw mats and baskets, Low ramps

• Telephone books, Paper cups

• Rabbit safe toys, Paper bags

• Toilet paper/paper towel tubes

• Dryer hose, empty paper bags

Mourning the Death of a Bonded Mate

• Eat less, lethargic, polydypsic

• Isolate themselves or may seek an increasing amount of attention

• Engage in misbehavior – chewing, digging

     o Provide more attention, watch that they are eating and defecating

     o Allow them to "view" the dead mate's body

     o Provide new mate ASAP – keeping in mind the difficulties of bonding new rabbits

Behavioral Training Techniques

• Clicker Training

• Targeting

• Desensitization and counterconditioning

     o Get used to the stimulus at gradually increasing levels

     o Associate the stimulus with positive reward so a positive emotional response is gained

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